Thursday, June 22, 2006

Comcast Offers Station Advice

Comcast officials said Monday (June 19, 2006) they are ready to help the city improve its local cable channel, but said the city must first decide what it wants.

Charles L. Smith III, area director for government and community affairs, and Peter J. Lyden III, senior director of franchise and government affairs for the New Jersey region, told City Council members the station can offer technical assistance and training once the city settles on whether it wants to show messages, live events, taped events or a combination. Comcast normally helps set up local channels and then, Lyden said, “We more or less back off - it’s the city’s channel.“

Smith said he was not aware of any ongoing issues with the local channel. Lyden said he would check with access coordinator Ed Robertson on whether the city has contacted Comcast about the quality of the local channel. He said the only way for Comcast to assess the quality would be to view Channel 74 inside the city.

“We do require the feedback from the viewers in the city,“ Lyden said.

As part of franchise negotiations in 1999, the city requested two local channels.

Comcast donated $150,000 for start-up costs and set aside 2 percent of its franchise fees, between $110,000 and $120,000, for operating costs. The city also received a $50,000 supplemental access grant this year.

Smith said no other municipality received more on a 10-year franchise.

At present, only Channel 74 is operating, largely on a message-board format. A school-based channel is not operating. Station Director Rebecca Williams was not retained by the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. A board that is supposed to oversee the operation currently has no members.

Lyden said probably the first thing the council should look at is whether to have a full-time or part-time person in charge of the station. He said some towns have volunteer station managers. Others rely on a city clerk. Lyden and Smith handed out packets describing how Woodbridge, Cranford and Union manage their local channels.

City Council President Ray Blanco began the discussion with a brief history of legislation related to the franchise. Blanco said in recent years, the Comcast funds meant for operation of the station went into the city’s general fund. He now wants to use some city surplus funds to restore the operations fund.

Blanco also asked Comcast to allow council members Linda Carter and Rayland Van Blake to visit stations in other towns. The two serve on a new advisory committee on cable operation.

Carter asked Smith what he felt was minimum staffing for a quality channel. Lyden said the station should at least have a full-time coordinator.

Smith said the 10-year franchise expires in August 2009 and suggested that the city soon begin a three-year “ascertainment” process on its cable service. Negotiations usually start in the last twelve months of the franchise, he said.

--Bernice Paglia


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